Anime Industry Reality Check: Fans in the Anime Industry

The office we all wish we had...Sometimes I think I’m not the best qualified to talk about the anime industry, seeing as I feel more like an incredibly lucky fan who just managed to hop on the tails of something grand and awesome. I keep feeling like any minute, the Anime Police are going to bust in my front door and arrest me for geek fraud and aggravated counts of Pretending to be a Professional and Responsible Adult. I’m just a geek from Vancouver, surely I’m not qualified to actually be working as an anime script writer!

But wait, I hear you say, wouldn’t being a geek make you the perfect candidate for the job? Aren’t anime companies filled with ascended fanboys and fangirls making a living at their hobby?
Well… not exactly. And thus, here’s another Reality Check column on fan insiders and employees in the industry.

NOTE: All of the below is referring to Western anime companies, particularly English-speaking. I genuinely don’t know enough about Japanese anime company dynamics to know if the same is true for them.

The Fantasy

American anime companies are run by passionate and dedicated otaku who live, eat, sleep and breathe anime. These are people that know exactly what the fans want, because they are fans themselves, and that personal love for the medium guides each and every action they take, from the licensing to the casting to the marketing. Each title is treated like it’s their own personal baby, shielded and protected from anything that could ever besmirch the perfection and the beauty of the original Japanese product, like changes to the script or names. Who cares about money as long as we can produce as much high-quality anime as possible? Everyone involved with each project, from the voice actors to the writers to the director, is completely devoted to the series and to anime as a whole, and after a long day in the studio will go home to watch more anime, eager to immerse themselves further in their hobby.

The Reality

To be fair, depending on the company, there is a note of truth to this. There are quite a lot of fans working in the industry. Funimation in particular seems to have found massive success in being a by-fans-for-fans company. After speaking with some of their reps and examining their approach to the market, it’s clear that they have a personal and passionate interest in the medium, and that the majority of their workers are fans themselves. A lot of smaller companies manage to keep things pretty strongly on the otaku side of things too. And I think you will find that, in general, the marketing departments of many larger companies will have quite a few fans kicking around, as having people who understand the target audience is a great benefit to a company.

But for many companies, the reality is that most of the employees are not big fans of the medium. Oh sure, they may have a passing interest – possibly caused by the job itself! – but for every frothing fangirl dub/subtitle writer who blogs for Geek’s Dream Girl (*cough*) you’re likely to have five or six sound engineers, subtitlers or producers that come to the office with a cup of coffee, calmly and diligently do their work, then go home and forget all about it. I know, I’ve worked with several; they’re all very nice people and are at least intrigued by the medium, but they’re not hardcore fans by any stretch of the imagination. And let’s not even get started on how things work for the voice actors (that will be an entirely separate future post). For a lot of industry insiders, an anime-related job is just that… a job.

It should be noted, by the way, that there are many different kinds of anime or anime-related companies as well, and a lot of the fannishness can depend on what type of company or what division it is. The marketing, licensing and creative departments of, say, Viz are more likely to have fans than finance or HR, and a dedicated publisher like Bandai is going to have more anime-focused employees than a general animation post-production company that tackles anime, Marvel cartoons, French animation and tons of other things.

So why not make a bigger point of hiring anime fans? Well, there are several possible reasons. One of the biggest is confidentiality. Everyone in the industry has to sign a non-disclosure agreement as soon as they walk in the door, pretty much; we’re not supposed to talk about what we’re working on outside of official press releases and interviews. But if you are a prolific poster and/or engaged with anime fandom, and you find yourself landing a major title like Death Note or Bleach… well, speaking from experience, it’s really hard to sit on your fingers and not say anything to anyone. A lot of fans might not be able to manage it, and one careless word could end up opening a can of worms all over the fandom. Plenty of companies might decide not to take the risk and instead hire someone who isn’t about to rush off to the Internet to tell everyone who they cast to play Char Aznable.

Another reason could be keeping it professional. As a fan, I’ve had my share of slightly unprofessional moments, such as my response to landing the second half of Death Note (the phone conversation went somewhat along the lines of, “OHMIGOSH OHMIGOSH thankyouthankyouthankyou!” while I danced around my apartment) but I’ve made an effort to keep my fangirling on the downlow as much as possible, or at least express it in a more polite and restrained fashion. Let’s be honest, not all fans have that restraint. Is Viz or Bandai going to want to hire someone who constantly trails off into rants about how OMG GOKU CAN TOTALLY KICK EVERYONE’S BUTT EVEN A GUNDAM or SQUEE NARUTO IS MY BISHIE AND I WANT HIM AND SASUKE TO DO IT?  Or how about someone who refuses to adapt a Sailor Moon script properly because EVERY TIME YOU DEVIATE FROM THE JAPANESE, GOD KILLS A KAWAII NEKO CHAN! Obviously not all fans are that… um… enthusiastic, but still, the company is going to want someone who can be professional and treat the job seriously as opposed to an excuse to squee.

Lastly, let’s face it, skills are probably going to trump enthusiasm. You might be the most dedicated anime fan on the planet, but if they’re looking for a sound engineer, then you’d better have had sound engineering training, experience etc. Not to say that there aren’t amazing otaku sound engineers out there,  but it’s that second part they’re going to be really interested in; the fannishness is a bonus.

So the reality is that, as much as we’d like to think otherwise, the anime industry is not some paradise of pure geeky glee, and a lot of the people in it, from accountants to subtitlers to secretaries, just want to make an honest buck or two, even if it involves weird big eyed Japanese cartoons.

When Reality and Fantasy Collide

Unfortunately, no one tells the fanbase this, and thus it’s very easy for them to have somewhat unrealistic expectations of how a Western anime company should approach a title. They expect everyone on board to love the series as much as they do and want to preserve its awesomeness, then get pissed off when it’s not done to their satisfaction. Obviously, this isn’t entirely unreasonable if the adaptation is particularly bad; anime fan or not, that’s still no excuse for lazy production, bad acting or badly marketed product. But I have to shake my head a little at some of the pearl clutching that can go on in forums and other fannish spaces. “My god! They translated Chichiri’s ‘no da’ as ‘you know’! How could they? Surely their deep and intimate knowledge of Chichiri’s character should have stopped them from writing something so out of place!” Or how about, “How can Viz/Bandai/ADV/Funimation POSSIBLY not want to translate Boku no Sexual Harassment? Surely they must realize what a masterpiece of romance and workplace drama it is!”

The unrealistic expectations can also end up bleeding over into a more professional aspect, that of job-hunting within the anime industry. Because it’s easy to assume that anime companies prize a passion for the medium above all else, applicants can often end up dwelling a bit too much on that aspect of their resume, to the point where their interest in anime is the only part they focus on.  Result: a stack of resumes from people who would totally be a great candidate because they spend 18 hours a day watching anime and know all of Fist of the North Star by heart, for real. While it certainly helps to highlight your interest, you do need to offer something more, and you should not be talking more about your Gundam marathons than your professional experience and skills.

Can Fantasy Become Reality?

I’m pleased to say that yes, it can indeed. There is plenty of room in the anime industry for passionate fans to find a niche and get paid for doing what they love. I’m living proof! We also see plenty of fan-employing companies (like Funimation) enjoying indecent amounts of success, as well as a few fan-started companies taking off as well. So yes, there is plenty of room to turn your passion for big eyes and interesting hair colors into a job where you make it happen.

However, that love for anime is not going to get you the job all by itself! You might be the biggest otaku in the universe, but they’re still going to hire the guy who knows nothing about it if he can do the job better. Not to mention that even if a company does hire fans, it’s not just an endless party of hanging out in the break room and watching anime! In the end, this is a job, and like any job, you need to be professional, skilled and reliable. Work on nailing that, and you might end up getting that dream job regardless of your manic addiction to One Piece.

What are your thoughts or experiences in working in a “fannish” industry? Should a company in a geeky field make a point to hire appropriate geeks, or should skill trump personal interest? What “geek” to “srz bznz” ratio would you expect?

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